LISBON, June 5 (Reuters) - Portugal, haunted by past failings, were the last team to qualify for Euro 2012 and despite a place alongside Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark in the ‘group of death’, they are no underdogs, aiming at least for a place in the quarter-finals.
The football-mad Portuguese cannot understand how they let slip their first major success when they lost to Greece in the final of Euro 2004 in Lisbon. Eight years on, it still hurts.
Although that ghost survives, Portugal, having qualified for a seventh consecutive major championship, are confident and determined to capitalise on a stellar midfield and the talent of the world’s most expensive player.
Cristiano Ronaldo, 27, is in his prime and he does not hide his ambition.
“These are the colours we will defend in the Euro with one single objective: to conquer it,” he wrote on his Facebook page next to a photo of Portugal’s new secondary kit -- a white shirt, with a green and red St. George’s cross, the symbol Portugal used in the era of great maritime discoveries.
Ronaldo may be galvanised by his incessant dazzling displays with Real Madrid, but coach Paulo Bento is more down-to-earth.
“We want to go as far as possible, and our first objective is the quarter-finals, that is what is set out at the moment,” Bento told reporters.
His Portugal have flair in attack and a resolute defence, qualities forged through a tough, and memorable, qualifying passage.
Euro 2012 seemed little more than a mirage after they opened with a 4-4 draw with Cyprus and a 1-0 loss to Norway and lagged second from last in Group H. Carlos Queiroz was suspended and Portugal were managed by an interim coach.
But, after Bento took over in September, 2010, he nailed five consecutive wins. When they lost to Denmark and slipped into the playoffs, Portugal stayed cool -- before storming to a 6-2 aggregate victory over Bosnia.
Portugal were runners-up in Euro 2004, reached the semis in Euro 2000 and the quarters of Euro 2008. Two years ago, their South Africa World Cup campaign ended in a defeat to eventual champions Spain in the round of 16.
The flamboyance and firepower of Ronaldo and Manchester United’s Nani should ensure excitement on the wings while busy Porto midfielder Joao Moutinho, Chelsea’s Raul Meireles and Real Madrid centre-back Pepe, if needed, are leading midfield options.
In defence, Zenit St Petersburg’s Bruno Alves, and Pepe, offer combative power and experience, though this is the area of greatest uncertainty after coach Bento fell out with experienced defenders Ricardo Carvalho and Jose Bosingwa.
Real Madrid’s Carvalho announced his retirement from international football last year, saying he had been disrespected by Bento, while Bosingwa vowed never to play while Bento is in charge.
Their absences will be felt, but it may be that Portugal’s attack carries the greatest concerns.
Strikers Hugo Almeida and Helder Postiga seek to silence critics who claim Portugal’s abundance of flair has been let down for years by the absence of a top striker since Eusebio in the 1960s - and that without goals, they have little hope. (Editing by Tim Collings/Mike Collett)